Friday, 28 October 2016

Football without Offside - a German experiment

Can you imagine football without offside? 11 Freunde magazine was so inspired by a rant on TV from actor Til Schweiger about the need to abolish Law 11 that it turned theory into practice. It staged a 60-minute game between two Berlin Oberliga (fifth tier) sides to see if the game would really be as exciting as some people suppose.

Bruce Willis stars in: The Hardest Call
The game is described in its latest issue (#180), outlining the presumptions beforehand. Abolishing offside would 1. Give players more space. 2. Encourage wing play, as happened when field hockey abolished the rule in 1998. 3. Teams would be prompted to give up the midfield. 4. There would be more shots and goals and 5. The game would go nuts! One interested observer was the manager of second division Union Berlin, Helmut Schulte, who criticised what he called the "crush football" of the modern game - characterised in his view by too many tight midfield battles.

The referee was 24-year-old Hüseyin Erol Özadali, who was looking forward to a quiet game. "Offside is one of the most difficult decisions for a referee," he understated. Because of course the

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The greatest time and place - autumn, on the football pitch

Game 23, 2016-17

I'm cycling to the game and already there's a fight going on, but only between summer and winter. A chill breeze cuts across a silent Sunday afternoon, while a brittle sun struggles to find cracks in the clouds. The result: the comfort of festering autumn and the dying of the leaves. It's back to long-sleeved shirts for the next five months at least.

Oh Christ, the fucking ref's banging on
about autumn again.
I'm also thinking about all the things that could go wrong today. You try not to expect anything bad ahead of your games, but I last refereed today's home team 18 months ago. On that day I red-carded three of their players in the last 12 minutes of a fractious and filthy adult men's match that ended with them losing 1-0 to an injury time penalty. After the game I had to lock myself in my changing room while a drunk representative of the club banged on the door.

When I saw today's match-up in my inbox last month, I thought about asking for another game. Then I thought, What for? What are you scared of? Nothing really, is the answer. Today, I check the team

Monday, 17 October 2016

Penalty! Dissenting with the majority view

Scunthorpe United v Milton Keynes, 15-10-16

On a short enforced break from refereeing, I ended up at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe, to watch the current leaders of the English third division take on Milton Keynes, the much vilified entity that stole Wimbledon FC’s identity at the start of this century. It wasn’t a great game – too many long balls, from Scunthorpe in particular, for my taste – but as a neutral it was fascinating to watch the reaction of the crowd to the referees.

In the eleventh minute, Scunthorpe striker Tom Hopper followed one of those long balls over the top of the MK defence. Just inside the penalty area, he beat the keeper to the ball, heading it to his left, then collided with the keeper, who by this time had stopped and was holding his arms in the air, realising he wasn’t going to beat Hopper to the ball. Two defenders were in close attention, and one of these picked up the loose ball (which they likely would have done even if Hopper hadn’t gone to ground) and cleared.

The crowd screamed for a penalty, but none was given. The fans around me moaned about it for 20 minutes. The linesman directly in front of me received abuse for the rest of the first half. The Scunthorpe bench harangued the fourth official (like it was his fault). All three officials were booed off the pitch at half-time.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Game of Moans could do with more levity

Game 22, 2016-17

"And so ends this instalment of The Game of Moans," I announce as I blow the final whistle. The player standing near me starts to laugh. "Heh, sorry about that," he says. "I know it was pretty bad today." I point out that it's always pretty bad. But really I'm just delighted that he laughed - it doesn't happen often enough on the football pitch.

Gareth and Cristiano setting an example
- football's just for fun, right guys?
Next I walk up to the home team's left back. A few minutes earlier he'd made a fairly sour comment about me needing glasses. In keeping with the Artur Alt Philosophy of "Hear less, see more", I decided to ignore him. Two weeks ago I'd have pompously show him a yellow card. "Thanks for your touching concern about my eyesight," I say, "but in fact I already wear contact lenses." For the first time all game he cracks a smile too, then shakes my hand.

It was a bit of a knockabout afternoon. While inspecting the pitch before the match, I found the abandoned packaging of an eight inch rubber dildo. I picked it up to take it to the rubbish bin, and passed a group of players waiting outside the changing room, not yet in their kit. "Can anyone tell me which team this belongs to?" I asked, holding it up. Ho ho ho, much laddish chuckling.

Otherwise, though, amateur football is a deeply serious affair. The occasional moments of lightness usually come when some gawky hacker tries the spectacular, like an overhead kick from 30 yards out, and misses the ball completely. Only goals result in smiles. Even at this level, goalkeepers do that thing of pulling off a spectacular save and then chewing out their defence for letting the shot happen at all. You'd think they'd be happy to get the chance to show off their skills.

It will be a challenge, and I won't let it interfere with my running of the game, but for a while I'm going to see where the following approach gets me: "Card less, quip more."

Final score: 2-2 (four yellow cards)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The wisdom of Artur Alt, a ref for 56 years

Game 21, 2016-17

"Hear less, see more." That's the advice of 77-year-old Artur Alt, who's been refereeing for 56 years. This past August, according to a feature in the latest issue of the magnificent German monthly football magazine 11 Freunde, Mr. Alt refereed his 8000th game. In the last 1000 games he says that he's only shown two red cards. "He's very relaxed at dealing with agitated players," says a fellow member of the club he represents, TSV Steppach near Augsburg (in Germany every ref must be a member of a club, whose games he or she then never officiates).

Artur Alt: still an inspiration after 8000
games (pic: Conny Marbach/11 Freunde)
I thought of Artur Alt yesterday afternoon at the end of a boys U15 game. The two losing coaches were looking for someone to blame. I could see them marching towards me as the home team shook my hands, and the dejected away team trooped off the field. I knew they weren't coming over to wish me well and thank me for turning out on a wet, windy afternoon. They'd already spent the entire 70 minutes of the game screaming, "Referee!" at every single hint of contact. They'd only shut up when I threatened to send them off.

Away they went. Hey ref, why did you give a free-kick for that foul on the edge of the area when it had clearly been a penalty? Also, had I not heard the insult? They were both babbling so fast that it was impossible to determine who had been insulted and when. I should have pointed out that they had spent so much of the game screaming at their players (and so, to be balanced, had the home coach) that it would
have been impossible to hear any insult on top of their ranting. But I only thought of that later, so I wrote it up in my match report.

"No, I didn't hear any insult," I said. One of their players came over to join in. "Are you deaf?" he